When my oldest was about to turn ten, it was time to face the question of Latin. I knew Charlotte Mason had her students beginning their Latin studies around that age, but I still had to decide personally if we would follow her plan. It was rather a question of how much I would trust her. We had made some rudimentary attempts at German from the beginning, and I was actually surprised how such small attempts could begin to add up to some real knowledge of the language, but adding a second one already did seem rather daunting. Granted, we probably had an advantage over others because I had taken a year of classical Greek in college, so all the conjugations and declensions of Latin did not intimidate me. My son also seemed to have inherited a bit of my curiosity about ancient languages, so I had a willing student. However, I still had some misgivings about adding Latin to our schedule. Was it really necessary and worth the time it would take? How could I justify all the effort for that one subject? Besides, it is one thing to dabble in a language to satisfy curiosity, but it is an entirely different thing to persevere when it becomes difficult, which I imagined happening rather quickly with all the grammar involved in the study of Latin. But as I was mulling over all the questions, I came across this passage in my readings:
“You will see at a glance, with this Captain Idea of establishing relationships as a guide, the unwisdom of choosing or rejecting this or that subject, as being more or less useful or necessary in view of a child’s future. We decide, for example, that Tommy, who is eight, need not waste his time over the Latin Grammar. We intend him for commercial or scientific pursuits,–what good will it be to him? But we do not know how much we are shutting out from Tommy’s range of thought besides the Latin Grammar.” (School Education, p. 162-163)
Could anything have answered my doubts more clearly? I certainly didn’t want to deprive my son of any inspiring ideas, so we would study Latin. I will admit to still having lingering, nagging questions in the back of my mind. Wouldn’t we have to progress to actually reading ancient Latin texts in order to find any of those inspiring ideas? I didn’t have much hope of making it that far. I later discovered that Mason believed even the beginning Latin exercises could capture the imagination of the students. We would soon find that to be true.
I quickly realized how wise Mason had been in setting up her plan of foreign language study. Our knowledge of German, small as it was, provided the perfect opportunity to explain some of the new concepts in Latin. We had learned the German orally and through simple stories, without focusing on grammar studies, but enough grammar had been contained in those experiences, that we had a perfect set of examples for comparing the Latin to German as well as English. Beginning grammar lessons at the same time as Latin felt completely natural and everything dovetailed beautifully and made the process simpler. Both Latin and grammar became easier because what we learned in one complemented the other and we could look at examples of the grammar in three different languages. We found a program that got us reading short passages in Latin right from the beginning, so there wasn’t the long slog of memorizing endings before you got to put it all to use, which I loved. We were making progress and enjoying ourselves in the process! Latin even became one of my son’s favorite subjects.
The question still remained for me, though, of whether or not Latin was for everyone. I became more certain that my son had just inherited my interest and we must be rather unusual. But we were having so much fun with the language that I didn’t want others to miss out, if it was possible to share that joy. One year ago, I got the crazy idea to offer to teach Latin to the older students in our Charlotte Mason co-op group. We had been meeting for two years, sharing our studies of nature, artists, composers, and poets. It had been a tremendous blessing to all of us, easing the individual load on the moms and enriching the studies of all of us. Why not try something similar with Latin? Not all the families were excited about it at the beginning, but everyone eventually decided they would give it a try. We found a book to work through together, written entirely in Latin, but that assumed no previous knowledge of the language. The kids gathered around in a circle as I read the first sentence or two, and when I paused to ask them to narrate back, their eyes got really big as they began to understand that they were actually being asked to narrate in Latin! Every single one of them did, some more fluently than others, but the sense of accomplishment for everyone was huge. We worked our way slowly through the first few chapters, adding to our knowledge of the grammar piece by piece. More importantly, we got a peak into the lives of men far removed from our own experiences. There is a Parents’ Review article that speaks to the benefits of reading classical Greek and Latin texts.
“Lastly, this constant practice in the difficult task of understanding the feelings, purposes, beliefs and actions of those men, so remote from us in time, and almost every external condition, yet so near to us in all essentials;—is it not an admirable method of awakening and widening our sympathies and enlarging our power of understanding our own immediate neighbours? And does not that process, so far as it is carried, tend to make us better neighbours, and therefore better and happier men?” (“Why Learn Greek and Latin?” by R. L. Leighton, The Parents’ Review, Vol 10, 1899)
We are only beginning our Latin studies, and our text is not ancient, but the book tells the story of an ancient Roman family and we are given a glimpse into their times and a different way of thinking. For example, in chapter two we learned that when they numbered the people in their families, the servants were included in the total number, which raised some interesting questions about how they viewed their slaves. That same month we were reading about Marcus Crassus in Plutarch’s Lives and learned how he executed the slaves involved in the revolt with Spartacus. I found myself pondering the Roman mindset, grappling with how it all tied together. Charlotte Mason was right again! We did not have to progress nearly as far into Latin as I thought we would before living ideas emerged to grab hold of our imaginations. Of course, not all the students developed a love for the language like my son. They are still all individuals with their own tastes and preferences, but I believe each one had their world expanded in some way. It was amazing how many references to Latin we became aware of in other readings and even movies. Our composer for that winter was Hildegard von Bingen, and it was a delight to be able to recognize a few of the words in the text of her songs. We learned Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in Latin, and listened to a version of it performed as a Gregorian chant. Students performed skits in Latin for their fathers at end of term celebrations. We had a lot of fun together in our lessons throughout the year, but as we read the last section of our current chapter, I wondered how much the students could actually understand. The difficulty was increasing quickly and we only met every other week for a short time. I felt we had succeeded in many ways, but was still unsure of what sort of progress we had made in actually understanding the language. I didn’t even have to wait for them to translate to find out. Their laughter at all the funny parts as we read the text was proof that they were comprehending the Latin.